FEMA Chief: Local broadcasters give "the best information" in emergencies


The earthquake in the DC area, coupled with Hurricane Irene’s march towards the East Coast, has ignited a debate on the value of broadcasting’s “one-to-everyone” signal versus the “one-to-one” architecture of the cellphone network. Cellphone networks clogged after the earthquake this week, leaving thousands of callers stranded without a signal. Yet the broadcast signal was robust and reliable, providing lifeline service that local radio and TV listeners have come to expect from broadcasters.

Our friends in the cellphone industry have predictably used this week’s massive system failure as a call for more broadcast spectrum. The fundamental flaw in their argument is this: in an emergency situation when tens of thousands of people are trying to call simultaneously, the cellphone network as it is currently designed is destined to fail. As constructed now, all the spectrum on the planet won’t prevent cellphone network disruptions in a crisis situation.

But don’t take our word for it; click on the link below, featuring an interview today on CNN with Federal Emergency Management Association Administrator Craig Fugate. I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting salient quotes (with an occasional emphasis added) from Mr. Fugate, who leaves little doubt that the government’s top official charged with protecting lives of Americans during emergencies still believes in the importance of local broadcasting.


CNN Interview with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate: Interview conducted by CNN Morning Anchor Ali Velshi
August 25, 2011

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate
A lot of people look to FEMA for the answers. These answers – about what impacts you could have – and what you need to do in your communities – are going to come from your local officials. And that’s why it’s really important with your local broadcasters – that they are going to have, often times, the most detailed information about what’s happening in your community …… (emphasis supplied)

Ali Velshi (CNN)…..
One of the things that happened earlier this week with the earthquake is that, all across the Eastern seaboard, and maybe it was just overloaded circuits, but there were cell phone problems. What’s the best way people are going to get information?

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate
…You know were going to go back to what I think people that got so enamored with their smart phones and stuff forget – it’s your local radio and TV stations. Those local broadcasters are going to be giving you the best information, real time, from those local officials out of those press conferences. So make sure you got your radio and television…and again cell phones get congested, but we did have some success with people text messaging or using social media…but remember cell phones themselves in heavy congestion may not be able to get through. And stay off the phones if it is not an emergency, because other people may be trying to call 911. Use text messaging, use land lines, but again local TV and radio are going to probably be one of the best sources of information from those local officials during the crunch time of evacuation. (emphasis supplied)

Source: CNN website: visited at 10:05 AM, August 25, 2011 (transcribed from video podcast)

— Dennis Wharton, NAB EVP/Communications